My new hero Lenore Skenazy posted my "Free-Range Experiment" on her blog yesterday. (Guest Post: Trust A Stranger at the Park?). One comment in particular has been nagging at me (in a good way). "i am pretty free-range. but, having a stranger, in NYC, saying she could watch my kids, while tempting, is not always the wisest course. Where is Rachel located? NYC is its own animal. I would have suggested the same thing, but I can’t think of many moms who would take me up on it. It all depends, really; it’s not an open/shut case of who is neurotic and who isn’t," (rae liter).
I would absolutely agree that someone's response to the question "Do you want me to watch your kids?" is in no way a litmus test for how overprotective he/she is. In fact, I had to add in the discussion on that site that I couldn't leave my own toddler to anything less than an infantry unit in my own living room (or so I'm advised whenever someone watches him while I run to the Post Office or take a shower). Then again, the free-range discussion for the most part does apply more to kids 4 years old and up, I would think. Maybe even a little bit older. Surely no one would recommend letting toddlers loose in Central Park or anywhere else.
But I keep thinking about the NYC part of it. About how many times people say to me, "It's a city thing" when I complain about one aspect of child-rearing or another. The $1000 stollers -- a city thing. The craziness about music classes for kids who are happy banging the proverbial pans. Soccer classes because you don't feel like taking the time to play a game of catch. The looks you get on the playground when your kid even starts to pick up a car no one is using--can you give me one second to wrestle it from him before you start in with "Get that! We need that back. We're leaving soon." It's a city thing. So I'm curious about this.
I have found it true in many instances, and certain limits to freedom are the only rational way to behave-- we can't let our kindergartens go bike riding down 9th avenue by themselves. The wonderful childhood memories I have of climbing trees alone and having picnics in the woods and wandering down the railroad tracks (yes I was old enough to know to get off the tracks as soon as I heard a train coming, back then they were still allowed to whistle) is just not in the cards for my kids unless we move. But how much of the distrust and disconnectedness and alienation is due to the inherent dangers here and limited resources and how much to other factors? How do people outside the city feel about the free-range movement? I was talking to a friend who is back up at Dartmouth for his vascular surgery residency who says he imagines kids up there play outside (in the country) just the way they always did.
Is that true? Are we in the city catastrophizing by imagining a whole way of life gone, replaced by video games, computers, scared parents, clear cut yards in subdivisions with trees no taller than the top of an average SUV?
Of course there are much bigger questions at work here, in terms of perception around danger. Clearly we are governed by instinct over reason (we jump in cars without blinking but say Hail Mary's when hitting heavy turbulence mid-flight not to mention the superhuman courage we'd have to summon to walk in the woods alone at night). Do you remember the Times article a while back about city-folk being terrified of the country? Makes me think of the time my boyfriend and friend came with me to visit my parents in a small town Northwest of Boston. We took a walk at night. There were no street lights and there was no one around, most of the houses were dark, surrounded by woods. "Is this safe?" they asked. They never thought twice about the warehouse-lined street by the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn where we had our music studio.
My cousins from California wouldn’t step foot inside the NYC subway. What did they do instead to get around the city? Just about the most dangerous thing you could do beside hang-glide down from the Empire State Building– they drove.